Our children need to figure it out and direct their own behavior. (Part one)

6) Our children need to figure it out and direct their own behavior:

This is the sixth of eight principles in the “Development & Discipline” section of my upcoming parenting book The Loving AND Effective Parent. This is not a final draft.

Children who behave well because we have managed to somehow trick them, or manipulate them, or bribe them, or threaten them, or even force them is the opposite of what we are trying to accomplish here.  Our children need to figure it out and direct their own behavior.  That won’t happen if we are doing their thinking and directing their behavior for them.  We need to step back and have a little faith in our children.  They will learn how to figure things out and act accordingly if we give them the right opportunities and treat them with respect.

The right opportunities happen all the time.  We just need to recognize them and take advantage of them.  We will sort these opportunities into three main categories and look at them one category at a time. 

Opportunities that occur during our development & discipline efforts: He refuses to put his toys away; she forgot to wear her bicycle helmet, etc.

Opportunities that naturally occur in our children’s daily life: spilled Cheerios, a broken window, wanting something they don’t have the money for, a stolen bicycle, etc.

Opportunities we gently lead our children to: touchy issues like unhealthy peer or romantic relationships, lack of self-awareness, etc.

Opportunities that occur during our development & discipline efforts:

In these situations, we are looking for fairly specific behaviors - the behaviors we are encouraging and the behaviors we are discouraging.  How do we help our children figure out which is which and then direct their own behavior accordingly?  This may sound counterintuitive and even a little irresponsible.  We let our children choose their own behavior.  We let them decide what they are going to do.  Please do not confuse this with permissive parenting where the parents give their children great freedom to decide whatever they do and don’t want to do.  Yes, we are going to let our children chose their own behavior, but only within the boundaries we have created.  Those boundaries are what make this work.  


Baby in highchair example:

Have you ever seen a baby drop something from a highchair on purpose?  Like little scientists they slowly move their fingers with a Cheerio or two to the edge of the tray.  Then they release by moving their sticky little fingers any which way they can until the Cheerios drop.  Sometimes they lean over hard in an attempt to see where the Cheerios go.  Gravity is fascinating at that age.

Cheerios are great, but bottles are even better.  You can actually hear them when they hit the floor!  And sometimes you get the added bonus of a very animated parent when you throw that bottle.  Science and entertainment all wrapped up into one.  Life is good.

Now parents come in all different types and styles.  Some parents will keep giving you your bottle back no matter how many times you throw it.  It’s a pretty fun game, especially when your parents get all excited and noisy.  Something about, blah, blah, blah, you shouldn’t, blah, blah, blah, don’t you dare, blah, blah, blah, NO!, BLAH, BLAH.  Hey, what’s with that “NO!” sound anyway.  I have been hearing a lot more of that one lately.  

Some parents will give you your bottle back a few times.  And then it does not come back and you are still hungry and a little confused.  It comes back some times but not others.  Science can be tricky.  Other parents won’t give you your bottle back at all.  What’s up with that?  I am just a baby and I am still hungry!

This is the thing about babies.  At nine to ten months old a normal human baby has more brainpower than any other creature on the planet.  Pick the animal you think is the smartest: service dogs, monkeys, dolphins?  Your baby’s brain is more capable.

Here is what happens if you never give the baby the bottle back when he throws it.  He figures it out!  “When I throw my bottle over the edge, it never comes back.”  

Establishing this boundary of not returning the bottle will probably involve some tears and crying while the lesson is being learned, but your baby’s health and emotional well-being are not in any danger.  Do not let the baby sense any frustration or tension on your part - that will derail the lesson.  Always be calm, loving, and encouraging, never a harsh word or action.  Sooth and comfort the child, but do not give the bottle back.  Taking the baby out of the high chair can reinforce the lesson.  Do what makes the most sense to you considering your baby, his temperament, and his feeding schedule.  Just make sure enough time has passed for the lesson to have its effect.  It might take a number of repetitions over several days. 

It is a wonderful moment when you see your baby getting ready to throw his bottle, stop, think, and then start sucking on it again.  Wow!  You just trained your baby to not throw his bottle instead of your baby training you to play fetch.  You just helped a baby figure out a consequence and direct his own behavior accordingly!  There are some adults who struggle with that their whole lives.  

When the baby is no longer hungry or finished with the bottle don’t be surprised if that bottle goes flying.  Hey, we are talking about a little baby here!  No need for any negative reaction or words on our part.  Just pick up the bottle with perhaps an, “All done,” in a sweet, musical voice.  

*One mom in a parenting class I taught spoke up and said she actually did this, and it worked well with her babies.  She did not return anything that was thrown from the high chair.  Her children figured it out and feeding times became much easier.  

**If this example is a little too much for you, that’s OK.  You can start this approach when you think you and your child are ready.  This approach can turn the “terrible twos” into a wonderful and truly enjoyable time, so don’t wait too long.   

The most important part of this example:  Our words could not help us!  We could tell the baby not to throw the bottle until we were blue in the face; the baby might be amused, but not understand what we wanted.  It was the boundary of the never-returning bottle that gave the baby something real to work with.  That unchanging boundary was the information the baby needed to figure it out.  

As our children get older many of us start depending way too much on our words and wishful thinking and not enough on our actions or boundaries.  

If our words are ineffective and our child does not want to do what we are asking her to do, she probably won’t do it.  We need to remember the baby in the highchair example.  We need to remember our goal is to set up the situation so our children have to figure it out and direct their own behavior.  If we keep talking, nagging, reminding, yelling, shaming, threatening, and lecturing, our children will probably learn nothing except how to tune us out.

Remember, our goal is not to “make” our children behave well.  Our goal is to get our children to “make” themselves behave well.  If we have respectfully asked a child to do something legitimate and the child refuses, we move on to the next step calmly and quickly.  We do not try to force the child’s behavior.  We do not keep pushing for compliance by repeating and escalating failed approaches.   

Our son refuses to pick up his toys:

We have asked our son respectfully to pick up his toys.  He refuses to pick them up. That’s OK.  We do not try to force him or convince him he has to do it.  We have already asked him nicely.  Instead, we quickly move on to the next step.  Calmly, we pick up the toys and keep them in a safe place until our son is ready to take better care of them.  For a toddler, this could be a matter of hours; for a grade school child it could be a matter of days.  We need to keep the toys long enough for the lesson to have its affect.  

When we think our son is ready to take proper care of his toys, we give them back and ask him to put them away nicely before he plays with them.  That will test his sincerity.  After he has put the toys back nicely, he can play with them again.  If he does not put his toys away, he is obviously not ready to take proper care of them yet.  We take the toys away for a while longer this time.  

Whether or not our son gets to play with his toys is completely up to him.  He already knows that if we have properly explained the situation to him. In this family we take proper care of our toys and other possessions.  Our son needs to figure that out and direct his own behavior accordingly.  

*This approach is almost always effective, but I have seen a few cases where the child had a gazillion million toys and the effect was pretty limited.  No real surprise there, but that is a whole other issue.

Our daughter does not like wearing her bike helmet:

Bike helmets are a non-negotiable in our family.  Everybody knows the rule as well as why we have that rule.  Everybody knows the three-day consequence.  

When our daughter pedals up the driveway without her helmet on, we do not yell at her or scold her or lecture her.  What would be the point?  She already knows the rule and the consequence.  She already knows what we think about the matter.  Everybody already knows everything they need to know.  What could more words possibly add to this situation?  They certainly cannot change what has already happened.  

We cannot “make” her wear her helmet if she is really determined not to.  We shouldn’t even try.  That could easily get pretty ugly, and we would most likely look foolish and ineffective.  Instead, we let her decide what she wants to do.  She either wants to ride her bicycle enough to wear her helmet, or she doesn’t.  That is for her to figure out and then direct her own behavior accordingly.  We cannot do that for her.  We simply honor her choice either way.  

At the moment, that means we have to lock the bike up for the next three days.  When the three days pass, she is the one who will determine whether she rides her bicycle or not, and she knows it.  We will not “make” her wear her helmet, but we will not let her ride her bicycle unless she does.

Being firm does not mean we cannot be empathetic.  Actually, we should be empathetic.  She loves riding that bicycle.  “This is a sad situation.  I know how much you like riding your bike.  I love how happy you are when you ride it.  If there is something wrong with your helmet, please let me know and we will take care of that.”  

Our child asks us for something with disrespect and a bad attitude:

Do what we talked about in principle four: Do not demand respect, but do not accept disrespect.  Our child is going to have to figure this out and direct his own behavior accordingly.  

The twins keep getting into arguments and fights over who gets to sit in the big chair when watching TV:

We have already asked them nicely to watch the TV quietly and respectfully.  They ended up pushing each other off the big chair again.  We do not try to “make” them behave.  That would probably be a disaster anyway because they are wildly energetic at the moment.  Instead, we calmly and quickly move on to the next step.  “I have already asked you nicely to not fight over the big chair.  Until you two can figure out how to live in peace, neither of you can watch any TV.  I know you can figure this out.  Let me know what you decide.”  Walk over, turn the TV off, and take the remote.  

It is now up to the twins whether they can watch TV or not.  They need to figure it out and direct their own behavior.  This one is a little more challenging because they have to deal with each other, not just themselves.  

In each of these examples we have set up the situation so our children can figure it out and direct their own behavior.  Our words and actions stayed focused on presenting the boundary or the consequence.  All of these boundaries or consequences should reinforce what has already been established in our families.  

We take proper care of our things in this family.

We wear bicycle helmets.

We are respectful.

We do not fight with each other.  

We simply uphold these known rules and values.  We do not waste our precious time, energy, or words trying to “make” our children behave when they forget or refuse.  Instead, we put them in a situation where they have to “make” themselves behave by figuring it out and directing their own behavior.  

“I really want to play with my toys now, but mom took them.  When I get them back, I will have to put them away when I am done playing with them, or she will take them away for even longer.”

“I cannot believe I couldn’t go riding with my friends today.  When dad unlocks my bike, I am going to ride it, but I will wear my helmet.  I never want to miss riding my bike with my friends again.”

“Whenever I disrespect mom it never works out well for me.  She has no intention of letting me get away with that.  I have got to get a handle on my attitude when I am around her or she won’t give me the time of day.” 

“We can’t watch TV until we figure out how to share the big chair.  We need to take turns without fighting or we won’t be able to watch anything at all!”

The purpose of these boundaries or consequences is not punishment or making our children “pay” for their crimes.  We do not want them to pay; we want them to learn!  We want them to learn how to figure it out, direct their own behavior, and make good choices because they understand what consequences are and how they work.  We want them to learn how to resolve situations and solve problems.  In the four examples, the children end up telling themselves what they need to do.  That is exactly what we want to happen.  That is what children taking responsibility for their own behavior and choices looks like.  This is where, when, and how good character and life skills mastery begins – moments like these.  

Remember, whenever we are holding our children accountable for something, we must be reasonably certain the child can do it.  It is unfair and potentially destructive to hold a child accountable for something he is incapable of doing.  But also remember, most children are much more capable than we think.  Hopefully, we have been paying close attention to our children so we have a fairly accurate idea of what they can and cannot do.  There are also moments when we should extend grace: the child is exhausted, famished, or legitimately upset about something else.   

In real life, most children need to experience some consequences before this type of change or learning takes place.  Compliant children will not need to experience many consequences.  Extremely strong-willed children will need to experience many, many, many consequences.  The more convincing, determined, and unmovable we are, the fewer consequences our children will need.  That’s what happens when they know we are not going to change our minds.  Regardless of our children’s temperament, we must not cheat them out of those necessary experiences, no matter how many times we might have to repeat them.  Remember, the better our heart connection with our child is, and the more effective our family structure is, the easier all of this is.

Boundaries and consequences are only effective if we do not move or change them.  Our children need to know we will not change them.  Otherwise they will spend their best energy and effort trying to get us to change them instead of figuring it out and directing their behavior as we intended.  If they test our boundaries, we must not waver or show signs of weakness.  We are cool, calm, and confident.  Once our children know for sure we will not move the boundary, they will have to put their energy and effort into resolving the situation.  They will have to figure it out and direct their own behavior.   That is exactly what we want to happen.

But if we falter:

“OK, I can see how much you want to ride your bike with your friends, but the next time this happens I will lock your bike up and I mean it!”  Moving a boundary like that can destroy the value and effectiveness of our words.  The more we give in or move boundaries, the more our children will try to manipulate us and get their way.  We are now encouraging challenges and power struggles.  Actually, we are training them to challenge us and pull us into power struggles.  

When I work with parents this is where many falter.  They tell me they tried what I suggested, but it did not work.  When we look closer, almost always it turns out they chickened out at the last second.  They lost their confidence and resolve and moved the boundary.  Usually, they were too afraid of their child’s reaction.  This is one of those critical moments that separates effective parenting from ineffective parenting.   We will learn more about dealing with these direct, face-to-face confrontations later in the book.

If our children get us to move our boundary, we will be revisiting that same issue over and over again.  In many families it is normal to have endless conflicts over the same issues.  Getting Jimmy to put his blocks away is a battle almost every time.  Getting Sarah to feed the dog almost always involves yelling and conflict.  We never want to get caught up in those kinds of useless cycles.  What a waste of life and precious energy, not to mention the strain on relationships.  

We stop these cycles by holding the line and requiring our children to figure it out and direct their own behavior appropriately.  When they do that, the results of that process usually stay with them.  They learn that putting their toys away or wearing a bicycle helmet is their responsibility, not their parent’s.  They start monitoring their own behavior and taking responsibility for it.  That is a parents dream come true!


By the time our children leave home, we want them to have already worked through countless experiences learning about consequences through their own good and bad decisions when the cost of those bad decisions was manageable.  In the baby in the highchair example the cost for the baby was being hungry and upset for a little while.  In the other examples the cost was not being able to play with his toys for a while or not being able to ride her bike for three days.  The cost for a teenager texting and driving can be multiple deaths.

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